Nepal: Military may have role in the murder of Birendra (08/01)

The world abruptly woke up to revelations about Nepal’s internal problems on June 1, 2001, the day it was told that the kingdom’s crown prince had killed his parents and other royals, then turned the gun on himself. According to official reports, it was all the result of a dispute over the prince’s choice of a wife. The news sparked a nationwide trauma, and brought the world press to the streets of Kathmandu.

The massacre’s grisly details – though none of forensic significance – were dutifully reported to the world. The archaic funerary rites were also widely broadcast. But none of the bulletins offered real insights about the country: the poverty, the failing democracy, the army’s role in Nepal’s politics, or the insurgent Maoist movement that controls over a quarter of the countryside and has the support of as much as half the nation’s 23 million population, and possibly more.

Since then, an occasional Nepalese commentator has forecast privately, “The truth will come out in a few months. Watch,” they say. While the international press accepts the more acceptable conclusion – “We may never know what happened in the palace” – we would do better to listen to that guarded warning. Those off-the-record comments actually mean “keep your eye on the changing power relations between the king, his army, the government, and the Maoists.”

Several months after the massacre, while the new king maintains a low public profile, a new political dynamic has emerged. First, confrontations between the Maoists and police have reached a new level, and, for the first time, the army is assuming an active role in trying to suppress the peasant movement.

During the past five years, as the largely rural rebellion grew, only the prime minister and police have been involved in trying to thwart Maoist actions. While the Maoists undermined the power and efforts of both, the army remained completely out of the picture. Although the king became a constitutional monarch when democracy was restored in 1990, he retained his post as commander-in-chief of the army. In that role, he kept the army at bay.

Clearing a Path?

Nepal’s army is an even more secret institution than the palace. But most citizens are all too familiar with its record of selective, brutal, and swift responses to any display of public dissent or hint of revolt. After the palace killings, when no one in the country dared to question the “official” explanation of the crime, and the free press suddenly censored itself, one Nepali observer commented, “If that is what Ôthey’ can do to the royal family, imagine what they will do to us.”

Public suspicions of foul play, never publicly voiced by commentators or government officials, were probably the motive behind days of street riots following the massacre. Six unarmed street protesters were killed outright by the police. Yet, no Western reporters, academics, or diplomats who know the country well have stepped forward to suggest foul play. Instead, they’ve essentially joined the apparent cover-up.

One circumspect Nepali commentator, speaking about the massacre on international radio, did get the message out to those really listening. “This massacre is a tragedy for our country,” he said. “It is difficult to get all the facts, but there is no reason to believe in rumors of a conspiracy. The military spokesman himself has given us all the facts. The military itself have given us the reports.” For most outsiders, the message may have been too subtle. But, in effect, he was revealing that the military is in control of the situation.

Although Nepal currently has a parliament and prime minister, both have been weakened by corruption and lack of public confidence resulting from widespread mismanagement, including their handling of the Maoist movement. Just days before the massacre, there were calls for Prime Minister Giriji Prasad Koirala to step down. Barely a week before that, the Maoists called a general strike in Kathmandu. The capital came to a complete stop, revealing that the Maoists could intimidate the entire population. The strike also demonstrated that this wasn’t simply a rural movement in the hills, but had penetrated the capital itself. In July, Koirala was finally forced to resign.

Ravi Adikhari, a Nepali journalist based in New York, reports that King Birendra, who was killed on June 1, to some extent sympathized with the Maoists and enjoyed an intimate relationship with its deputy leader, Balram Battarai. “The king played a subdued role since his abdication of absolute power, and although he was military commander in chief, he was unwilling to bring the army against the Maoists.” Adikhari and other daring commentators suggest that the “generals” were doubtless alarmed by the growing sphere of influence of the rebels, and were anxious to wipe them out. Their readiness to act was also influenced by the apparent helplessness of the elected government.

Facing increasing threats from the insurgents and resistance from King Birendra, they could have decided to take matters into their own hands. That meant removing whatever obstacles lay in their path.

Li Onesto, a US journalist writing about Nepal in the Summer 2001 issue of Z Magazine, named “the growing strength of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency” as the significant context of the royal massacre. She characterizes the situation as “a crisis within Nepal’s ruling class over how to deal with the insurgency.” King Birendra, she notes, “was the focus of a sharp debate over whether or not to mobilize the army against the Maoists.”

In 1999, Onesto spent several months moving through the guerrilla zones in Nepal’s mountainous regions, a visit arranged by the Communist (Maoist) Party of Nepal. She is one of the few outsiders who have witnessed the benefits brought by the Maoist movement, and she heard testimonials directly from their members. “Peasants talked about landowners and corrupt officials who steal their small plots of land,” she reports, “and money lenders who charge exorbitant interest” – then take over the fields of their debtors. She also describes how farmers, who once couldn’t feed themselves, have become self-sustaining after being reorganized by the Maoist campaigners. Onesto notes that “about a third of the people’s army squads are women, and in the guerrilla zones, just about every village has a revolutionary women’s organization.”

From women and men, she gathered testimonials about widespread rape, torture, and other abuse sustained by peasants at the hands of landowners, police, and other officials. Peasants were driven “to pick up arms and fight the government,” she writes, because of the injustices they suffered and the government’s failure to curb abuse.

It’s hard to believe that the Nepalese army, which enjoys a reputation as a rather benign force, would be behind the massacre of an entire family (and probably the servants as well), then frame the crown prince for the cowardly act. Certainly no Nepalese wants to believe this. But they know their army leaders better than others, and, unable to speak publicly, they’re simply waiting for the proof of what they widely suspect. Any alteration in policy toward the rebels, or signs of the army inserting itself more centrally into national policy, may give them the evidence they need to confirm their worst fears.

From Poverty to War

For some, signs are emerging that a long-dreaded war has already begun. King Gyanendra lost no time in instituting a public security act that bans meetings and restricts speech. Before the massacre, the efforts of the Maoists were given almost no international media attention. Now, the international press reports that they killed 40 police officers in a July offensive – more than they managed in any single action over five years. Furthermore, they have reportedly abducted 71 policemen, holding them as shields or for ransom.

Meanwhile, the army is reported to have attacked some Maoist strongholds with helicopter gunships, which sustained some hits in response. Nonetheless, it claims to have succeeded in killing more than 100 rebels. In addition, several bombs have exploded in the capital, the first time any such action has been reported. No one was hurt, but the blasts were attributed to the Maoists.

Even if parliament wanted to restrain the military, the government is in such disarray and its leadership so weak that it is virtually immobilized. This puts the king in a stronger position to decide on military action.

According to reports from Kathmandu, the Maoists have gone on a verbal offensive against the new king, a tactic they didn’t employ against his deceased predecessor. They also called another one-day strike in Kathmandu, completely shutting down the city. It’s an unmistakable message to residents and the government that the Maoists control the capital.

Reports about Nepal, both before and following the massacre, have routinely described it as one of the poorest countries in the world. During the recent media blitz, that adjective popped up in virtually every report from Kathmandu. Yet, no investigation has been launched to discover the roots of the situation. Poverty isn’t an inherent characteristic of third world countries; it results from war, natural catastrophe, misrule, or mismanagement. Nepal has experienced neither wars nor natural catastrophes. Since the cause of its continued poverty is pretty self-evident, it’s only natural that, in the absence of honest government, alternatives emerge.

Nepalis fought for and won their democracy in a costly 1990 revolution. They secured a multi-party system, an elected government, and a free press. But the government didn’t institute any of the needed judicial and economic reforms. Moreover, the king’s estates remained intact, members of the royal family were immune from criticism, and the army stayed outside and above the democracy.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a regular contributor to TF and a frequent commentator on Arab issues, was based in Nepal from 1970-88 as an anthropologist. Her new book, Heir to a Silent Song, Two Rebel Women of Nepal, is the history of two rural women who campaigned for women’s rights and against corruption in the early part of the 20th century. Published in Nepal, it can be ordered at or from the author.